Key debates for March 15 conference

Motions and constitutional amendments for the Socialist Alliance annual conference have now been sent out to all members. They are also available on the SA website (http://www.socialistalliance.net/resources/conference/index.html). The conference, which takes place on March 15, will represent something of a watershed for the alliance. The main debate will surely be over the future of the alliance. Will conference vote to maintain the stagnant status quo or decide to remove the fetters holding back the organisation's development and move towards becoming something useful for the working class - an independent political party? The 22-page conference document contains a number of resolutions that will allow members to discuss the way forward. Central will be the debate over motions that call for the Socialist Alliance to campaign for a new workers' party (CPGB, Workers Power, James White/Paul Shawcroft/Nick Long, Revolutionary Democratic Group). In opposition to this will be the Socialist Workers Party. Its motion on the future for the alliance is full of well-meaning phrases and an action list of things we are already doing. In short, it is a motion to keep things pretty much as they are - albeit with a higher profile and demanding "more implantation in communities". It recognises that we "act as a party" during election campaigns, but have a weak profile in between. It avoids the main issue - in order to act more like a party in between, well, we need to become more like a party. Obvious really. Yet the SWP wants us to hold back from this vital transformation. It is just a matter of "raising our profile". Yet without the cohesion of a partyist culture, we cannot raise our profile. Initiative will remain outside SA branches. We will merely be responding to events on the executive. While the SWP and its closest allies - most notably the International Socialist Group - will ensure they have a majority at this conference, there is a real possibility of at least a conjunctural unity between the pro-party elements. In effect, the best we can hope for is that the only support for the 'status quo' comes from the SWP and the 'usual suspects', ensuring that the victory for the forces of conservatism will be a Pyrrhic one. The preamble to the motion moved by Alan Thornett and Mandy Baker has many worthwhile formulations. For example: "If the SA does not move towards becoming a party, it will repeatedly come up against the limitations of [the united front] model." However, the action points of the motion are exactly the same 12 the SWP is proposing. Obviously agreed behind the scenes between the SWP and supporters of Resistance, this is a bizarre arrangement. While mouthing pro-party sentiments, the ISG in fact capitulates in action to the demands of the anti-party majority. In addition to those wanting to transform the alliance into a party, there are four motions in favour of a regular Socialist Alliance paper. The SWP/ISG bloc has been forced to recognise the momentum behind this move. It favours "developing Left Turn [the so far one-off national bulletin] as a more regular and substantial publication with an editorial structure". The history of the Socialist Alliance has witnessed majorities refusing to take their responsibilities seriously. In its previous incarnation as the Network of Socialist Alliances, the Socialist Party played the SA dead, neither moving it forward nor killing it off. The SWP is in danger of repeating history. While the SP's amateurism led to the SA of that time being nothing short of a farce, in an inversion of Marx's aphorism, the dead hand of the SWP's 'united front of a special kind' could lead to the future of the SA being one of tragedy. What is healthy now, however, is that a clear pro-party minority is emerging, consisting of the overwhelming majority of non-SWP members of the alliance. The challenge before this pro-party minority is to find principled positions to unite around and, in the event of motions in favour of an SA party and political newspaper being defeated, committing themselves to the launch of an unofficial paper of the Socialist Alliance. Executive elections Many 'independent' members have got themselves in a twist about the method of election to the executive. Many feel, rightly, that the current block slate system allows for no input from individuals at conference. It is all about stitching up a deal beforehand. While pre-conference agreement between factions is actually desirable for the democratic functioning of any organisation, what is needed is flexibility, openness and transparency. Phil Pope and Geoff Barr favour the single transferable vote system. This seems to have much support among the people who post to the 'IndieSA' email discussion list. What I find most odd about the 'independents' pushing this system is that it would end up giving them exactly what they do not want: a majority of SWP members on the executive committee. While it is common knowledge that the CPGB would actually favour the largest component exercising its majority in an open and democratic manner, many others fear the SWP behemoth as the source of our troubles. In fact, the Socialist Alliance's greatest asset and greatest problem is the SWP - similarly, when the Socialist Labour Party had some dynamism, Scargill both made and held back that now dead organisation. The CPGB, and Jim Jepps of Colchester SA, favour a combination of the slate system and individual voting. We support a first-past-the-post voting system with conference being able to appoint an elections preparations committee instructed to draw up a recommended list for the executive committee on the basis of agreed criteria - any faction or individual can, of course, do the same. This combines democratic voting with a balance that takes into account political faction, region, gender and so on. It also allows for well-organised, out-of-favour minority voices to fight their way on to the executive. Rob Hoveman's motion calls for elections to take place under the current system at this conference (which I support), but effectively leaving it up to the incoming EC to devise a new system of elections (which I oppose). There are 17 nominations for the executive so far. Nominations, however, do not close until the day of conference itself. War on Iraq In a sense, this annual gathering has more of the feel of a 'normal' conference, combining as it does both policy motions and constitutional questions. There are five motions on the impending imperialist adventure against Iraq. Four of them deal with our actual political position on this war (from the CPGB, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Julian Silverman and Martin Ralph). The motion from John Rees (which merely proposes we do what we are doing anyway - support the Stop the War Coalition) seems aimed at allowing the comrade an opportunity to tub-thump. Labour and the unions Another key area of debate will be on the SA's relationship with the Labour left and non-SA socialists in the trade unions, and our approach to the labour movement in general. It is good that the SA takes this seriously, as up to now our blanket refusal to agree a common approach on Labour candidates where we do not stand is seriously weakening us. Likewise, while we have made some progress in the unions, our work remains divided, amateurish and preachy. The SWP correctly proposes coordinated intervention at union conferences. However, merely by holding a fringe meeting and ensuring there is a motion on the political fund is not enough. We need regularly meeting fractions of SA members. We need to fight for a real rank and file movement, not back this or that broad left - which often descend into turf wars between sects. On Labour we need an approach which engages with the mass base of the party - particularly those attracted to or still loyal to the (notion) of the Labour left. The CPGB has moved a resolution allowing us to campaign for certain Labour candidates where they commit to certain policies drawn up on the basis of our manifesto/programme. Without such an active approach towards the Labour Party, we will remain marginalised with nothing to say to its mass base. Other motions I have so far just touched on some of the main debates. No doubt more issues will be thrown up by amendments, which must be in by February 21. However, there are many other motions - some vacuous, some wacky. Through Nick Long's eyes, for example, the red flag is a symbol of repulsion to the mass of workers, whereas the Usdaw-like shaking hands is "inclusive". We say to comrade Long: "Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we'll keep the red flag flying here." Margaret Manning and Lesley Mahmood, along with Tony Reid in another motion, have called for quotas for women. Comrade Reid is calling for automatic regional representation on the executive. I trust conference will reject these bureaucratic measures that tend to focus on statistics rather than what makes the SA work: ie, the unity of diverse political trends. People should be elected on a political basis fundamentally. Why only quotas for women? Why not quotas for every shade of identity? (I bagsie the Australian seat on the executive.) The executive has made some suggestions for constitutional reform on matters concerning: the appeals committee; electing auditors; on SA candidates needing to be members of the SA; guidelines for the running of local alliances; and the affiliation of working class, progressive and socialist organisations. There are other motions on affiliation as well - which will hopefully be brought together during the compositing process. I have moved a constitutional amendment on regional structure. This is important in the run-up to the EU elections next year. The motion may well need to be amended to allow for the Welsh Socialist Alliance to fit into our constitution (the WSA agreed to seek affiliation at its conference last month) - and allow for the SA to become an all-UK organisation in due course. There has been a flurry of discussion concerning Will McMahon's motion committing the SA to oppose congestion charging. For once I am with Will on this. There is a motion calling for an SA-wide census, and another calling for rotating venues for national meetings. Then there is a very well-meaning but cringingly liberal and patronising motion from SWP Manchester supremo John Baxter calling on free membership for asylum-seekers. These minor matters aside, the crux of the matter remains - will the SWP treat the SA seriously? And can the pro-party minority get its act together? Marcus Ström